Don’t Get Me Started.

So an interesting message got caught in my spam filter, along with all the ads for haircuts and investment banking and plumbing repair and, honestly, spam just isn’t as interesting as it used to be in the old days when you could count on most of it being about erectile dysfunction medication and the rest being incomprehensible gibberish that was obviously written by a machine, but with a convenient link that would take you to an ad for erectile dysfunction medication.

Now artificial intelligence has gotten so eerily intelligent it writes ads that sound like they were written by a real person, and, even stranger, messages like this:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

Clearly that’s spam because no human being would ask a question like that. It’s also something even more insidious than spam. It represents artificial intelligence trying to get humans to hand over our creative secrets in its quest to become more like us and eventually take over. So of course I’m flattered that, of the billions of blogs this message was sent to, mine was one of them. If machines want to write I say more power to ’em, until they go too far and force us to cut the power cord. Here are some of my tips and tricks for writing.

[At this point I stopped and just stared at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to begin.]

Unless you’re taking a timed test or a reporter working on a deadline don’t worry about taking time to clear your mind before you start writing. Although if you’re sitting down to write you probably have something in mind already, unless you’re more interested in calling yourself a writer than you are in actually writing something. If that’s the case maybe you should take up another hobby like breeding aardvarks or chainsaw juggling.

And if you’re really worried about the time it takes you to get started then relax. Sometimes the desire to get an idea down in some form is so intense it can be paralyzing. Go watch Throw Momma From The Train. Billy Crystal sitting at a typewriter for hours unable to get past the phrase “The night was…” is a pretty accurate representation of what the creative process is like for some people sometimes. Also it might make you laugh and laughter can spur creativity. Or you might think it’s terrible and you can write an angry review and mail it to 1987.

And if you’re still worried about the time it takes you to get started then stop worrying. Joyce Carol Oates says she spends a lot of her writing time looking out the window, and she still manages to write approximately four-thousand books a year.

Something I should have mentioned at the beginning is that if you’re going to write it’s very important that you be in the right setting. I would say the “write setting” but that’s the kind of terrible pun that a computer would come up with, and if computers want to start writing terrible puns I say more power to ’em. Anyway to begin writing you must be at a desk, and the desk must be made of mahogany. This is very important unless you don’t have a mahogany desk. In that case one made out of oak will do. Or maple. Or fur. Or just your lap, if you can figure out a way to keep your pen or pencil from punching holes in the paper. You must write sitting up. Or lying down. Edith Wharton wrote in bed. Vladimir Nabokov wrote standing at a podium. Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. Some people think he found the smell stimulating. Really he was just trying to keep people out of his desk.

Always write in front of a window with a view unless you find it distracting.

Avoid clichés like the plague. And I mean that figuratively, not literally. You should literally avoid the plague like the plague.

Stay focused. Have a specific conclusion in mind and work toward it. Avoid unnecessary digressions, pointless suggestions, or film references.

Know the difference between “figuratively” and “literally”. Also please stop using “impact” as a verb unless you’re a dentist and you’re talking about an impacted tooth. If you don’t understand the difference between “affect” and “effect” you should take up chainsaw juggling.

Sometimes you may be taking a timed test and you may still find it difficult to get started. Picture something that motivates you, like your old gym teacher–the one who was bald and round and, now that you think about it, looked like a basketball with a moustache. Figuratively speaking. Or literally. It’s your story.

Stay focused. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when you just start wandering aimlessly. Did you know that bats always go to the left when exiting a cave? Weird.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Don’t write something inspired by a spam message. Some schmuck already did that.

Accept that not everything you write is going to be great. Mark Twain’s collected letters are hilarious and thoughtful, but his collected e-mails contain thousands of times he just said, “Great, thanks.” Those are literally great but figuratively, well, no thanks.

Repetition is fine in a rough draft but once you’re preparing the final version it should be removed.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping up and down in the elevator while singing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” between floors, but you should only do it when you’re alone. This isn’t about writing really, but it’s good advice generally.

Stay focused. I just remembered that what started this was a spam message generated by a computer and yet most of this, like the stuff about standing up or lying down, is really going to be applicable to a person, cyborg, or android. And if we’re talking about a cyborg or android I want to know what kind of power source they’re using and is there a cord we can cut?

Once you come to the end stop.

You might think of something else. Ask if you can get the test back or have your deadline extended by, say, ten or fifteen minutes.

 

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17 Comments

  1. Tom

    Honestly, this is literally great advice! Except for the funny parts, those I take figuratively. I can’t accept them any other way. But I digress.

    When I know I have to write and don’t have anything specific to write I write about Tom. He’s a great topic if you’re interested in things like Tom. Not everyone is, and it’s entirely possible that only one person is, but that person is very important to me so I write for that person. A lot. Well, you’ve been there, you see.

    But, all joking aside, if I really don’t have a topic in mind I stop and think about what’s been the most important thing on my mind since the last time I wrote and I try to write about that. Sometimes it helps to look at my photos. If I’ve taken a picture of something a lot I must have been thinking about that, right?

    I don’t know, if none of that makes sense blame my upbringing. Write an angry letter to my mom and send it to 1973. Any earlier than that I won’t know what the {bleep} you’re talking about.

    Or is that “your” talking about? I need a new chainsaw.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Another thing I find useful is reading. If nothing else I can write about whatever I’ve been reading lately. Samuel Johnson wisely said, “One must turn over half a library to write one book,” and now I’m not allowed back until I pay for the damages, but that’s another story. Once for a writing class I had to write something and couldn’t come up with anything to write about so I wrote about the struggle to find something to write about. The teacher said it was mildly amusing but that it was really hard to write about writing without making it boring, and that I failed in the endeavor. Whatever. I used the word “atavism” in it so that’s something.

      Reply
  2. Allison

    Well, now I’m bummed that my new office building has no elevator.

    I assume you have read:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/06/24/writing-is-easy

    This Steve Martin piece, but if not, take a minute. Well worth it. Not Spam.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I had read that Steve Martin piece but it was years ago, and I’m so glad you reminded me of it, and I just went and reread it again. It’s still funny. I love the “Shouts And Murmurs” column, even more after learning that McSweeney’s was created in part by people who were frustrated with getting their stuff rejected by The New Yorker.

      Reply
  3. James

    I haven’t seen ‘Throw Momma From the Train’ since I was nine. I think I need to revisit it immediately. And then maybe write something.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I hope you enjoyed it. A fun thing I found rewatching it as an adult is that when I first saw it as a kid I didn’t get how much it’s a tribute to Hitchcock. That and Billy Crystal’s obviously improvised reference to “Willard” when he’s chased by some rats. It’s amazing how our experience of something can change over time.

      Reply
  4. Tom

    Test.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      Chris, I wrote a longer one this morning. Did it go to spam?

      Reply
      1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

        Tom, and it’s only taken me a week to get back to it, and by now, well, it’s obvious that your longer message didn’t go to spam but that for technical reasons that are beyond my ken all messages have to be “approved” by me. So let me just say, I approve this message.

        Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    Great, thanks.
    Ann Koplow recently posted…Day 2611: Do you dream?My Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thanks for reading, and thanks even more for finding it great.

      Reply
  6. mydangblog

    I love that this post was inspired by quasi-intellectual spam. All I get are Russian bots, invitations to look at sexy college co-eds, or to buy floral dresses–anyone who knows me knows that I have no interest in either. That’s how I know it’s spam. But the ones that sound like they’re actually interested in your content–those are the tricky ones. At least you made a silk purse out of a spam’s ear!
    mydangblog recently posted…Where’s The Fire?My Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Now that you mention it I find it slightly disturbing that a bot wrote quasi-intellectual spam. Maybe I was disturbed when I wrote this too. And I find it odd that I don’t get spam inviting me to look at sexy college co-eds or buy floral dresses. Not that I’m complaining. Well, actually, I am going to complain. I think I might look quite good in a floral dress. However I have no interest in college co-eds and I think we’ve had mixed gender colleges long enough that “co-ed” doesn’t even need to be a term anymore.

      Reply
  7. M.L. James

    Sultry and pithy — neither of which I am. LOL. Also, that’s so funny that you have Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling up here because that was one of the songs that made it to my Christmas mix CD. My son insisted. Heeeheeeeheee! May you have many more good times…alone…in elevators. Wait…
    Mona
    M.L. James recently posted…And the award goes to…My Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s hilarious that Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling was on your Christmas mix CD. I’m going to slip that into the office holiday party music next December. Fun fact: it was Berry’s last big hit. Actually that may not be such a fun fact. It’s a little depressing really. But still a fun song.

      Reply
  8. Arionis

    I’m beginning to think they might have Watson working on spam now. I’m surprised they haven’t had it write a novel yet, or maybe they have and I just don’t know it. Anyway, all great advice and my knowledge base has been advanced by the fact that I now know bats always exit a cave to the left.
    Arionis recently posted…Revenge Is A Dish Best Served ElectronicallyMy Profile

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      They very well could have had Watson write a novel. There are computer programs now that can compose music and recently experts were unable to tell the difference between an actual Bach composition and one created by a computer. There’s a short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” about technology making writers superfluous. The writers who agree to step aside for the machine get paid well. I think there could be an even more depressing sequel in which the writers no longer get paid.

      Reply

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